Toronto 08 – Day 1 capsules
SOUL POWER (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, USA, 2008) — 8
Like WOODSTOCK without Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. Which is to say that SOUL POWER is a terrific performance film, has excellent footage of some of the greatest musical performers ever (James Brown, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and more) and does a very good job of putting its concert in a historical context. SOUL POWER is basically a film of a 1974 Zaire concert, which brought together black American, African and Caribbean artists for a festival intended to coincide with the Muhammad Ali – George Foreman title fight. There’s lot of black power, “back to Africa” talk that now seems so quaint (there are some light moments of comeuppance when the black Americans realize they’re first and last Americans). But the film makes neither apologies nor apologias for the talk of the time — simply presenting it (including lengthy excerpts from Ali saying some quite ugly things about whites). In fact, because this film is basically put together from footage for a project that was abandoned back in the mid-70s, it really has more the feeling of a time capsule, a document from the past found anew, than actually a new film.
We’d be talking a masterpiece if the editing were either more expressive (unlike in WOODSTOCK, the audience members in the Kinshasa stadium never really become more than standard reaction footage) or even just not so damn sloppy. There’s too many shots where we see visible cameras onstage, which would be bad enough except that several times the film cuts to the POV of the very camera we’ve just seen. Still, without those onstage cameras, we couldn’t have gotten the footage that we do. So ignore my formal cavilling — I had at least a smile on my face from beginning to end. The Thursday night audience burst into applause at the end of BB King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”; Withers dominates an arena with his voice and guitar singing a mournful ballad and the minimalist approach works beautifully (I’m reminded of Joan Baez singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in WOODSTOCK); Makeba, in a hairdo Patti LaBelle would have found excessive, plays good trooper backstage to make the show go on but sings “The Click Song” while denouncing that very title. We see every bead of sweat in this steamy concert, while the Spinners go through their tightly-choreographed dances. And people who think popular music isn’t intricate are invited to watch a drum number that shows what is possible with a single man and a single instrument. Also, a Best Scene Skandies plug: The Spinners v. Ali.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Ari Folman, Israel, 2008) — 3
Actual excerpt from my viewing notes: “I am so fucking tired of high-minded humanist anti-war films.” Even if WALTZING WITH BASHIR weren’t the latest Moral Equivalence exercise in Making Ourselves The Most Pure People in the Arabs’ Grave, I still wouldn’t care for it. A memory film about an Israeli soldier reconstructing his actions in the 1982 Lebanon War, the film tips its hand so early that the final revelation is more a relief than a surprise. Even if you didn’t know that WALTZING WITH BASHIR is somehow about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the film tells you right away by showing the protagonist approached by a sea of Arab women in mourning clothes. As a result, BASHIR has nothing to do but slog its way to the only place it has to go. If you’re gonna make a story that consists of nothing but the gradual revelation of events that have already taken place offscreen/offstage, you’d better be Tennessee Williams and have written SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, and not have tipped us off already to what the final revelation is. Also making a cartoon was a mistake, and not just for the reasons Mike points out. But also because we have Helpful Onscreen Psychiatrist tell the protagonist (based on Folman himself) that one form of traumatic denial is to stand outside the events, to see them as if watching a movie, to aestheticize them. But since 99.9999999 percent of this film’s audience was not outside Sabra and Shatila, and maybe 99 percent haven’t personally seen some comparable event, all we can ever do with a movie is watch it, i.e., aestheticize it from a distance. Like the wrestler who pins himself, the film denies the possibility of its own significance. Yes, WALTZING WITH BASHIR is a “deeply personal” film … but it undercuts its own ability to connect with anyone else.
JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, France, 2008) — 6
Italian neorealist director Vittorio de Sica once said anyone can play one character — himself — better than anyone else possibly could. I doubt De Sica could have ever made a film like JCVD, but it does prove his aphorism, having one of the weakest actors ever to become a major star turn in his best performance by playing himself. I know “best Jean-Claude Van Damme performance” sounds like “best Scottish cuisine” or somesuch, but this is actually an entertaining movie and Van Damme is good in it. JCVD starts out with a enjoyably funny action scene from a Van Damme shoot, done in a single 5-minute take in which every stunt and move and kick is done both well enough and badly enough (the mistakes, like the guy who “falls” onto the fire, are on the money for the sort of cheesy straight-to-video pictures Van Damme now makes). JCVD is not really a meta-movie though — we never return to that shoot, and the movies mostly re-enter through dealings with agents and L.A. courts (this movie, BTW, has the only empty courtroom in the history of L.A. celebrity child-custody cases). Instead, Van Damme gets gets involved in a Post Office holdup (I won’t say how) and everyone reacts to him as the action star (“I thought he looked bigger on the screen”). The best moment, I think, involved kicking a cigarette out of someone’s mouth. And JCVD is cleverly structured, showing some scenes out of order but clearly and with a point; it ends well, i.e., not like a Van Damme movie; Van Damme shows he has a sense of humor (the lack of which severaly limited him, particularly compared with that other muscle-bound Continental action-star with funny accent) and the film has a couple of good supporting performances (Skandies plug: the cab driver). But the film doesn’t really hang together though — the scenes more “happen” than “build.” And there’s one unforgivable scene in which Van Damme is lifted on a crane out of the set and breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience about his life, tries to cry onscreen and assures us that “this is real.” Um … no, it isn’t — JCVD foregrounds its own “movieness” in every possible way and a sudden tug at the heartstrings (and Van Damme’s limitations as an actor return for this scene only — he’s trying to “act”). In a way, JCVD is also inadvertantly truthful … Van Damme was never much more than a poor man’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and you never avoid the thought “what could this movie have been if Arnold had made it.”